Ruth Schall remembers when vendors and fellow IT directors would look at her network and scratch their heads.

"I would get calls, and people would think we were freaks. They'd say, 'What are you doing?'" recalls Schall, director of MIS for the city of Kenosha in Wisconsin, USA. "But people don't consider us quite so strange anymore."

Now, instead of expressing surprise at the broad use of Linux , Kenosha's peers are calling for advice. "It's been interesting to watch the evolution. Now we have people call and say, 'Can we come in and see what you're doing?'" she says.

Kenosha, a city of about 100,000, was on the bleeding edge when it began deploying Linux a decade ago. The city had been a Unix shop, but as IT demands became more dynamic and more dependent on the Internet, Schall decided that instead of buying more Unix boxes, it was time to look at an inexpensive alternative.

"We started bringing in Linux for our Web servers, our mail servers, DNS," she says. "We had read about how stable [Linux] was and we wanted to see for ourselves."

They also wanted to see what cost savings they could achieve. A study Schall conducted years ago showed that the city averaged savings of about $100,000 a year, and she believes it could be higher today.

Much of the savings comes from Linux being easier to monitor and manage, especially on the desktop. "Without Linux, we wouldn't be able to get by with the people we have," Schall says.

Schall's full-time staff of four manages about 300 client devices and about 20 servers for 19 departments, many of which are remote. The remote sites are connected via private lines or DSL. The servers run more than a dozen home-grown legacy applications, including systems for tax receipts, payroll and water bills.

Today, most of the city's servers are from Penguin Computing, a firm founded in 1998 that specialises in Linux servers. Its client devices are Neoware-embedded Linux thin clients that run a variety of open source applications, including Open Office. The city uses Red Hat Linux.

Schall says there were no major issues with the migration to Linux on either the server or the desktop. The city never used Microsoft on the desktop and so is in the process of transitioning from WordPerfect to OpenOffice.

"For the most part, everybody is happy," says Schall, who adds that OpenOffice integrates smoothly with Microsoft Word and Excel documents.

A key benefit of using open source applications such as OpenOffice and the Firefox Web browser is that they are platform independent, says Tig Kerkman, Kenosha's network administrator.

"So my users can download OpenOffice for free and use it at home on whatever hardware they have," he says.

As for the server side of things, Kerkman says migration has been pain free. "As we grew, I haven't really hit a roadblock saying, 'Oh, I can't do this because we're running Linux,'" he says.

Still, when Kenosha first deployed Linux it was careful to find a hardware partner that knew Linux inside and out. "At the time we were also talking [with a major systems vendor] that was talking about selling Linux. But it became apparent that they had certified machines for Linux, but they didn't know anything about it," Schall says. "I wanted somebody who knew a lot about it so that if we needed help, we would be able to find it."

Schall notes that brand-name vendors such as HP and IBM are big Linux backers, but she has stayed with Penguin because hardware prices from the bigger firms have only recently come down.

"Businesses and governments are sometimes afraid [of Linux] because they're unsure where the support is coming from," she says. "I say, don't ever be afraid of that, because when you need the support, it's out there in the form of the open source community. It's much better than anything we've ever paid for."

Schall is starting to look up the stack when it comes to open source. Most of Kenosha's applications are written in-house, but the city uses Linux-based routers and firewalls.

Schall says she's looking at possibly bringing in MySQL as the city's first database. Even Kenosha's lone Windows server might be on its way out. The server runs a handful of applications, including a proprietary Housing Authority application.

"The plan is to move this to Linux," Kerkman says. "They also have budget concerns and are looking at simplifying things and making it open source."